News Northern Alberta

Homeless shelters and outreach groups brace for busy winter as demands increase

The Salvation Army of Fort McMurray’s downtown location on Dec. 10, 2020. (Sarah Williscraft/Fort Mcmurray Today)

Fort McMurray’s homeless shelters and outreach groups are already finding themselves at capacity as COVID-19 cases rise and winter continues.

Edna Olsen-Moman, executive director of the Salvation Army of Fort McMurray, said the shelter has been full for weeks. Olsen-Moman says the shelter usually doesn’t see these numbers until later in the winter.

“We’re expecting this will continue to grow as the winter comes, and we get later into January and February,” said Olsen-Moman.  “COVID is definitely a different beast.”

The Salvation Army has set up four isolation rooms for people showing COVID-19 symptoms. If these rooms fill up, Olsen-Moman said the organization is prepared to move into a hotel. So far, one patron at the shelter tested positive for the virus but has since recovered.

“What happens tomorrow if four people come who are symptomatic or have tested positive?” said Olsen-Moman. “We always need to make sure that we have the ability to respond.”

The Salvation Army has also seen demands for help in family services. Olsen-Moman said more people are asking for help with rent, damage deposits and food. The food services program is serving more than 500 meals a week, which she calls high.

“People are coming forward that we haven’t seen before,” said Olsen-Moman.After the Marshall House shelter closed in January, the Salvation Army has run the city’s only overnight shelter. April’s flood hit the Salvation Army hard when water damaged the thrift store and the shelter in its basement.

People looking for a place to sleep are now housed at the Salvation Army’s thrift store as renovations in the basement shelter continue. Olsen-Moman hopes renovations will be finished by the end of January.

At the Centre of Hope, operations are normal and staff are following health rules. Rosie Keating, executive director at the Centre of Hope, said she is seeing more requests for warm clothing.

The organization is accepting clothing donations. The annual SubZero Challenge will take place online starting Dec. 15 and will run until the end of March.

The soup kitchen at the NorthLife Fellowship Baptist Church has also found working through COVID-19 to be challenging.

After April’s flood, soup kitchen volunteers served food on weekdays at the Salvation Army while the church underwent repairs from water damage.

That collaboration stopped after new COVID-19 health restrictions were announced Tuesday. For now, only members of the Salvation Army can serve food from the location.

Mark Usher, interim lead pastor at the church, said not being able to help has been discouraging, but safety comes first. Usher said people he meets are concerned about COVID-19. However, many are more concerned with needing warm clothes, getting food and finding a place to sleep.

“When the flood hit, the whole town was mostly focused on the flood and not COVID,” said Usher. “I would imagine it’s a similar thing for them because winter is not an easy time.”

By Sarah Williscraft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Fort McMurray Today